- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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The WNBA season is halfway done and the cream is rising to the top all over the league. Here are our midseason winners for the major individual awards. Let's see who is still hanging on to such a lofty status by the end of the season.
The candidates: Angel McCoughtry, Atlanta; Maya Moore, Minnesota; Candace Parker, Los Angeles
Each could make a case that she is the principal reason her team is having a great season so far. McCoughtry has been a scoring and stealing machine as the Dream have been the should-we-really-have-been-surprised force of the first half of the WNBA season. Moore is turning into the kind of dominant superstar she was as a college player at Connecticut as the Lynx make the case that they were always the best team in the Western Conference, no matter who anyone else drafted. And Parker …
The winner: Parker is simply spectacular. She is healthy for the second season in a row and finding her groove on every part of the floor. She's a relentless scorer and rebounder, a player who will dish and work and move. She sets the tone for Los Angeles, which is ramping up heading into the break with a nice run of wins and a level of play that finally matches the good things people were saying about L.A. before the season began.
Rookie of the Year
The candidates: Elena Delle Donne, Chicago; Skylar Diggins, Tulsa; Brittney Griner, Phoenix
No surprise that the "3 to See" are the leading candidates for this award. All three youngsters were asked to do big things for their teams and have largely responded by living up to the hype. But each finds herself in a different situation. Griner is working her way through a knee sprain, sitting out games and playing limited minutes in others. But when she's on the floor, her impact is so apparent. She can still score over people, she's still a defensive nightmare, and once the Mercury got used to playing their game with the big girl, they settled in and started winning. Diggins is having a rougher go in Tulsa; the Shock are still finding it hard to win games. But Diggins is comporting herself very well as a starting point guard in the WNBA.
The winner: Delle Donne. From her first time on the floor, Delle Donne showed the multifaceted game that is her special gift. She immediately elevated the Sky to a title contender in the Eastern Conference with her consistent scoring and rebounding; she looks every bit the missing piece of the puzzle for Pokey Chatman's team. Delle Donne has ranked among the league leaders in scoring throughout the first half of the season. Epiphanny Prince and Sylvia Fowles no longer have to try to carry this load by themselves; they can ride the incredible abilities of the most well-rounded, pro-ready rookie since Parker won the MVP Award in 2008.
The candidates: Allison Hightower, Connecticut; Glory Johnson, Tulsa; Shavonte Zellous, Indiana
Johnson, the second-year player out of Tennessee, is finding the potential as a pro that she never quite reached as a Lady Vol. She is the go-to player for Tulsa this season, averaging an impressive double-double, including about five points more per game than her 11.5 PPG as a rookie last season. Hightower, the former LSU star who has been called "quiet" and "unassuming," is a full-time starter in Connecticut this season and has nearly doubled her 6.8 PPG average from last season. Hightower's solid play has been vital as the Sun have dealt with injuries to Tan White, Kara Lawson and Renee Montgomery.
The winner: Zellous is making the most of the opportunity she has to fill in for the Fever's injured guards. She is averaging more than twice her 7.5 PPG from last season. The last time Zellous averaged double digits was during her rookie season in Detroit, when she averaged 11.9 PPG.
Sixth Woman of the Year
The candidates: Shekinna Stricklen, Seattle; Riquna Williams, Tulsa; Monica Wright, Minnesota
Since Seimone Augustus is out with an injury, Wright has stepped into a more prominent role -- into the starting lineup of late -- and is averaging a career high (about 11 PPG). But Wright is always a spark off the bench in Minnesota, a combination of smarts, hustle and big baskets. Stricklen, meanwhile, is helping out the injury-depleted Storm, averaging nearly 10 PPG off the bench for a team in need of offense in the absence of Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson. Stricklen had one of the best games of her young career on July 6, putting up 20 points against Washington.
The winner: Williams. The Miami product, who is among the league's top 3-point shooters, is averaging about 14 PPG -- which ranks second on the Shock -- off the bench. She put up a career-high 28 last month against Phoenix in an overtime loss.
Coach of the Year
The candidates: Cheryl Reeve, Minnesota; Mike Thibault, Washington; Fred Williams, Atlanta
Each of these coaches had a different charge this season, and we can safely say: so far, so good. Thibault, who became the WNBA leader in coaching victories earlier this month, is rebuilding a Washington Mystics franchise that had become the WNBA's symbol for futility, and he's doing it without a splashy draft pick and even without one of the league's bigger marquee names. But he has the Mystics playing solid, playoff-worthy basketball behind a great guard in Ivory Latta and a couple of unsung standouts in Crystal Langhorne and Monique Currie. As this season began, Reeve's Lynx were tossed aside with all the talk of Griner heading to Phoenix. But Reeve motivated her veteran team, took the slights and turned them into dominant play. Minnesota once again rules a tough Western Conference.
The winner: Williams. The Dream's start to the season was such a surprise to many because of the tumult on the team last season. Atlanta won four straight to open the season, and 10 of its first 11 games overall. The Dream will be anxious for the second half of the season after a skid in the early part of July.
Defensive Player of the Year
The candidates: Tamika Catchings, Indiana; Armintie Herrington, Atlanta; Angel McCoughtry, Atlanta
This award might end up being named for Catchings someday -- she's won it so many times -- but the Fever forward-extraordinaire has dealt with injury issues of late, and the Fever are working to climb out of an early-season hole. Still, Catchings ranks second in the league in steals, averaging 3.3 per game, and she's making a case as the league's top defensive player, as always. Herrington is a big part of the Dream's success this season, particularly on the defensive end, where Atlanta is making opponents miserable -- particularly ball handlers. But it's Herrington's teammate who gets the nod here.
The winner: McCoughtry. She is thisclose to being the midseason MVP and has earned this award so far, averaging a league-leading 3.5 steals per game. Her length and her agility make her a swarming, relentless mosh pit of arms and hands and pressure.
As the WNBA breaks for the 2013 All-Star Game, we hand out some unofficial hardware to some of the top performers of the season so far.